Tag Archives: Bay Area Refineries

Environmental Groups Oppose U.S. Army Corps Plan to Dredge the Bay for Bigger Oil Tankers

BayNature.org, by David Loeb, April 16, 2020
The Phillips 66 San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo. (Photo By Dreamyshade, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Drive east along Interstate 80, past the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, and you can see that the Bay Area remains very much embedded in the fossil fuel economy. And if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has its way, we may well be doubling down on that relationship.

The Corps has a pending proposal, officially dubbed the “San Francisco Bay to Stockton, California Navigation Study,” to dredge a 13-mile stretch of the San Francisco Bay Estuary from San Pablo Bay (just north of Point San Pablo) through the Carquinez Strait to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. This project would deepen the channel leading to four oil refineries along the shoreline by an average of three feet, allowing for the arrival of a larger class of oil tankers than can currently access these refineries. The Army Corps’ January 2020 Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for the project claims that the total volume of oil shipped will not necessarily increase as a result of the project, but rather claims that the dredging might even result in reduced ship traffic in the Bay by delivering the same amount of oil on fewer (but larger) ships.

A map of a proposed new San Francisco Bay dredge from the Army Corps of Engineers’ January 2020 environmental impact statement.

This argument has not persuaded Bay Area environmental groups, who last spring submitted comments on the Draft EIS opposing the dredging project. These groups, including San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Communities for a Better Environment, and Ocean Conservation Research, are submitting similarly negative comments on the Final EIS, which they say is not much of an improvement over the 2019 draft version. The deadline for public comments has been extended, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, until Tuesday, April 21.

The concerns of these organizations fall in to three basic categories: direct impacts on the local aquatic environment from both the dredging itself and from the increased traffic; direct air quality impacts on local communities from the increase in refinery operations; and above all, concern that increasing the capacity for delivery and production of fossil fuels directly contradicts the state’s mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow the impact of climate change.

I. Impacts on Local Aquatic Environment

The Army Corps’ EIS contends that the Bay floor sediments to be disturbed by the dredging do not contain significant levels of toxic materials. But comments by the environmental organizations point out that the Corps appears to be relying on studies done over a decade ago or more, and they list a range of contaminants that could be re-suspended from the settled sediment that are not addressed by the Corps. The groups point out that this narrow body of water connecting the Bay with the Delta is heavily used by endangered fish species, including Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and Chinook salmon, among others, as well as by harbor seals and California sea lion, both protected marine mammal species.

The groups also point out that the EIS only addresses the impact of the dredging itself on the local aquatic environment. By asserting that the deepening of the channel will not, on its own, increase the level of shipping in the channel, the Corps disclaims any responsibility to address the impact of increased oil tanker traffic. However, as the environmental organizations point out, there is little chance that the refineries would not take advantage of this opportunity to increase their operations. In fact, as Ocean Conservation Research points out in its comments, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo has recently been granted permission by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to double its refining capacity. So it would be naïve to ignore the probability of increased traffic in the Strait, with is attendant increase in disturbance of all kinds (noise, water pollution, possible spills, etc.) and the resulting impact on wildlife populations.

In addition, Ocean Conservation Research’s comment letter points out that in order to accommodate the larger ships of the Panamax class (so-called because they are the maximum size allowed through the Panama Canal), the Phillips refinery has proposed an enlargement and expansion of its wharf facility. Such a project would involve disturbance of sediments full of toxic heavy metals left behind by the Selby Slag, a company that operated a smelter there into the 1970s, extracting ore from waste metals. Because the wharf expansion is considered a separate project, the Corps is not legally required to address it in its EIS — but expansion of the wharf would not be economically viable without the deeper channel.

Additionally, according to Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh, “Baykeeper has concerns about how the project will impact salinity in the Delta. Deepening the shipping channel will push the fresh water/salt water mixing zone (known as the X2) further east, threatening drinking water supplies” for people in Contra Costa County and other Delta communities.

II. Impacts on Local Communities

Again, by asserting that the dredging project will not result in increased refining activity, and therefore only considering the impact of the actual dredging work, the Corps’ EIS does not find any impact on surrounding “environmental justice communities.” These communities, including Richmond, Vallejo, and Martinez, have been subjected to high levels of pollution from decades of industrial activity, and are demographically “majority minority” and low income. The failure of the EIS to contemplate increased levels of air pollution from increased refinery activities belies the refineries’ long record of “accidental” spills, flares, releases, etc. that have caused the area’s residents to periodically “shelter in place” long before the novel coronavirus.

III. The Big Picture

All of these local negative impacts are bad enough. But in their comments, the environmental groups assert that it is essential to step back and look at the much larger picture of what the dredging project implies for the region, the state, and the planet:

“The proposed channel alterations would remove constraints on expanding fossil fuel import and export volumes … The project will likely result in a significant increase in future volumes of crude oil and refined petroleum products shipped through the Bay … Here, the increased volume of oil and coal passing through the deepened channels will lead to greater refining and export activity. These in turn will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, both at the refineries and when the products are combusted. Stated differently, the dredging is ‘a mere step in furtherance of many other steps in the overall development’ of the area’s fossil fuel industry.”

The environmental groups believe that the ultimate plan of the oil companies is to have the Bay Area’s refineries serve as an outlet for oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands, one of the most carbon intensive fuel sources on the planet, given the energy that must be invested to extract it, liquefy it for transport, and ship it. Moreover, the transport of this oil from its source in northern Alberta to the Bay Area is highly problematic, both politically and environmentally. It involves expansion of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline over First Nation lands of the Salish people in Canada (a project that they are resisting both in the courts and on their land). Then the unrefined oil must be transported by tankers through the Salish Sea, threatening the already depleted Southern Resident population of killer whales. And finally, the tankers must pass through the Golden Gate, where recovering populations of humpback whales and gray whales are also facing increased threats from ship strikes in this busy shipping channel.

All of this leads to the final question of why U.S. taxpayers should fund (at an estimated initial cost of $57 million) a project whose main intended beneficiaries are privately owned oil refineries. Of course, direct taxpayer subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are nothing new, but in an era when we climate change requires us to be reducing our dependence on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, this project would appear to be moving us in the opposite direction.


About the Author

David Loeb
From 2001-2017, David Loeb served as editor and then publisher of Bay Nature magazine, and executive director of the nonprofit Bay Nature Institute. A Bay Area resident since 1973, David moved here after graduating from college in Boston. The decision was largely based on a week spent visiting friends in San Francisco the previous January, which had included a memorable day at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the late 1990s, after many years working for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau in Oakland, David had the opportunity to spend more time hiking and exploring the parks and open spaces of the Bay Area. Increasingly curious about what he was seeing, he began reading natural history books, attending naturalist-led hikes and natural history courses and lectures, and volunteering for several local conservation organizations.
This was rewarding, but he began to feel that the rich natural diversity of the Bay Area deserved a special venue and a dedicated voice for the whole region, to supplement the many publications devoted to one particular place or issue. That’s when the germ of Bay Nature magazine began to take shape. In February 1997, David contacted Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books and News from Native California, with the idea of a magazine focused on nature in the Bay Area, and was delighted with Malcolm’s enthusiastic response. Over the course of many discussions with Malcolm, publishing professionals, potential funders, and local conservation and advocacy groups, the magazine gradually took shape and was launched in January 2001. It is still going strong, with a wider base of support than ever.
Now retired, David contributes to his Bay Nature column “Field Reports.”

COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE: Refinery Town decision may have huge ramifications for nation’s energy infrastructure

Repost from Courthouse News Service

Refinery Town Says No to Valero’s Oil-by-Rail Plan

By Matthew Renda, Friday, September 23, 2016 5:14 PM PT
Courthouse News Service
Courthouse News Service

BENICIA, Calif. (CN) — The City Council of a small city of 27,000 in California’s San Francisco Bay Area made a decision this week that may have huge ramifications for the nation’s energy infrastructure.

The five-person Benicia City Council voted unanimously to reject the Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project — a substantial setback for an oil and gas industry that operates several refineries nearby and setting an interesting precedent for local government’s assertion of jurisdiction over oil and gas routes.

The Valero Crude Oil by Rail Project would have allowed the oil company, which operates a large refinery in Benicia, to bring in crude oil by rail rather than exclusively by ship as the current arrangement dictates.

However, Benicia City Council ended a divisive community fight over the issue by finding the project is too dangerous for the community. The potential for contamination of the Sulphur Springs Creek and other watersheds in the event of a derailment proved too much for the council members to brook.

“I have seen stories piled on top of the other about what wasn’t working and what is particularly troubling is the lack of financial resources provided in the case of a catastrophic event,” Mayor Elizabeth Patterson said during deliberation on Wednesday night. “The money comes in too late, people have to go out of business and people have to move away.”

Leading up to the decision, several questions about whether the City Council even had jurisdiction hovered over the matter, with project proponents asserting that the federal government regulates rail and any decision made by the city government is preempted.

However, the Surface Transportation Board wrote the city on Wednesday before the meeting saying while the federal government does regulate interstate commerce and the railroad, the proposed $70 million rail depot was within the regulatory purview of the city.

While many local residents applauded the decision, environmental groups talked about its reverberations.

“This is a victory for the right of communities to say no to refineries’ dangerous oil train projects,” Ethan Buckner with the group Stand — formerly ForestEthics — said. “The federal government has said once and for all that there is nothing in federal law that prevents cities from denying these oil companies’ dangerous rail projects.”

In the series of meetings leading up to the decision, Valero touted its safety record and said the train project carried minimal risk and would bring jobs and economic activity to the region.

“After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” Valero said in a statement. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

Valero is the largest employer in the city, according to a recent comprehensive financial report compiled by the city’s finance team.

However, Patterson said the city’s general plan calls for a more diversified economy that relies heavily on small businesses, many of which would be hampered by the crude oil by rail project, particularly if something went wrong.

“We have to be less dependent on the refinery as we pivot into an era of attracting different kinds of businesses,” she said.

In 2014, trains transporting crude oil spilled about 57,000 gallons of the environmentally hazardous substance, more than any other year since the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began keeping track in 1975.

The Columbia River, one of America’s most scenic rivers as it carves out the border between Oregon and Washington state, was spoiled by 42,000 gallons of oil when a train derailed due to a defective bolt on the track.

While many celebrated the possibly precedent-setting decision undertaken by the small city body, Councilman Mark Hughes resigned himself to certain litigation and its associated expense.

“Regardless of the decision tonight, I believe a lawsuit will be filed,” Hughes said.

So whether Benicia’s decision will be the first in an onslaught of local entities attempting to regulate elements of the oil and gas industry out of their communities or whether that will be left to federal and state authorities may be a matter for the courts to decide.

There are five major refineries in the Bay Area including the Valero refinery in Benicia: Chevron in Richmond, Tesoro outside of Concord, Phillips 66 in Rodeo and Shell in Martinez also operate and contribute significantly to both the local economy and air pollution.

The five refineries process about 800,000 barrels of crude oil per day and along with other oil and gas companies generate about $4.3 billion in local tax revenue, according to a 2014 study performed by Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation and commissioned by the Western States Petroleum Association.

But Ralph Borrmann, public information officer for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, told Courthouse News recently that the refineries are responsible for anywhere from 4 to 41 percent of the pollutants in the area, depending on which pollutant is identified.

Letter to the Bay Area Air District: require strict emissions caps on refineries

Posted with permission

Benicia Resident Marilyn Bardet’s letter to the Chair of the Board, Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD)

Direct staff to require numerical emissions caps on all refinery emissons
By Marilyn Bardet, Sept 16, 2015

Dear Chair Groom,

Marilyn Bardet
Marilyn Bardet, Benicia CA

In response to the overwhelming testimony the District has received from all corners of the Bay Area, as chair of the BAAQMD board of directors, you, with your board, have the authority to direct District staff to revise DRAFT Rules 12-15 and 12-16 as currently released, to require strict numerical emissions caps on all refinery emissions, including GHG.

By all means of public testimony over a two-year period, you have heard from concerned and affected members of the public, respected regional and national organizations (including Sierra Club, NRDC, CBE, 350 Bay Area, APEN, Sunflower Alliance) and other experts in the field who have recommended and put forward well-defined revisions that would impose strict numerical emissions caps on refinery emissions tied to current emissions baselines for TAC, VOCs, heavy metals and PM2.5, including GHG.

You know that oil companies in the region aim to acquire and process the most dangerously polluting crude in the world — tar sands. Refineries processing changed crude slates whose blends have increasing amounts of heavy crude, unconventional crudes such as Bakken oil, and/or tar sands will adversely impact regional and local air quality, especially affecting front-line communities and those “downwind communities.” Allowing emissions to “go up to” long ago established permitting levels (Valero Benicia’s permit was established in 2003) is tantamount to the District “giving in” to benefit the oil industries’ profit, not public health.

The District’s mandate is to clean up the air for the benefit of public health, and, in accordance with state mandates, to protect the climate by drastically reducing GHG. Oil refining is the biggest industrial source of GHG. Carbon trading by refineries will simply send “pollution credits” elsewhere and keep toxic emissions “at home” that kill thousands of people in the Bay Area each year. GHG emissions from fossil fuel combustion threaten to destroy our global climate and way of life.

Strong refinery rules that set numerical limits on toxic emissions tied to current baselines and limit GHGs are our best chance to protect public health and protect the climate.

We need your leadership more than ever now! I am writing to ask that you make it clear to your directors that the “highest good” must be done by BAAQMD in the name of public health and climate protection, such that, until revisions to Rules 12-15 and 12-16 are adopted that set refinery emission caps at today’s levels, including for GHG, the agency will suspend permitting for refinery projects.

This is a bold request, but these are very uncertain times that require every precaution and concerted action by leadership to create policies that protect people and the planet.

Thank you for your public service, and for you attention to my comments.

Respectfully,

Marilyn Bardet
Benicia

League of Women Voters to host Benicia forum on refinery rules

Repost from the Benicia Herald

Benicia forum on refinery rules set

September 8, 2015 by Nick Sestanovich

Air District to have 2-hour ‘open house’ at Robert Semple Elementary on Sept. 17

Debate over the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project — now well into its third year — intensified last week after the release of the revised Draft Environmental Impact Report. But even as residents, businesses and others in the city continue to pore over that massive document, they will have the opportunity to learn more about newly drafted state rules for refineries at a forum here next week.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District will host a series of open houses at elementary schools in the refinery-heavy nexus of Benicia, Martinez and Richmond this month to present the agency’s four new and amended rules to reduce refinery emissions.

“This is part of an effort to reduce emissions from Bay Area refineries by 20 percent or as much as feasible by 2020,” Air District spokesperson Ralph Borrmann said Friday.

The four rules deal with limiting ammonia from fluid catalytic cracking units; broadening equipment leak standards to include all equipment that handles heavy liquids; reducing sulfur dioxide from coke calcining processes; and regulating cooling towers to reduce emissions of organic compounds, toxics and methane by being able to detect and fix leaks.

“The Air District passed a resolution almost a year ago to develop a strategy to reduce refinery emissions,” Borrmann said. “Bay Area refineries are among the most regulated in the country, if not the world, but these meetings are presenting the public with an ambitious approach to reduce emissions that are part of an aggressive approach to regulate refineries in our area.”

The open houses, Borrmann said, will not be lectures but rather forums for people to discuss and gather information. Tables will be set up with in-house experts so attendees can ask questions about the new rules, he said.

“We hope the communities and other stakeholders will have an opportunity to learn about air quality and have a role in the rule-making process,” he said.

The BAAQMD’s Benicia open house will be from 6-8 p.m. Sept. 17 at Robert Semple Elementary, 2015 East Third St.

The two other open houses will be Sept. 15 from 6-8 p.m. at Las Juntas Elementary School, 4105 Pacheco Blvd., in Martinez; and Sept. 28 from 6-8 p.m. at Lincoln Elementary School, 29 Sixth St., in Richmond.